Beneath the Disguise of a Ladina

by Sandra Xinico Batz

El artículo original en español está disponible aquí: Bajo el disfraz de ladina 

Translators’s Note: The term ladino/a is utilized in various parts of Central America, in particular Guatemala, to denote a person who is a mestizo/a and speaks primarily Spanish. 

I migrated to Guatemala City when I was 15 years old because in my community there weren’t that many opportunities for one to become a teacher, which for me was a necessary step to complete my goal: to work in education and study at the university. One of the first radical changes that I experienced was to stop wearing my Mayan clothing in my daily life. I justified doing so by thinking of it as a measure of convenience for whenever I took the bus, or by rationalizing that it was simpler and cheaper to buy a pair of pants and a blouse, especially since having to wash and dry skirts and güipiles (traditional woven blouse) in a small apartment on the fourth floor seemed like an investment of time and effort that I was not willing to maintain. A couple of years passed and I felt comfortable going unnoticed among the people of the city, avoiding all the insults and discomforting looks (which I had experienced on those few occasions when I would travel to the city wearing my Mayan clothes).

When I returned to my village, that was the moment when I would reclaim my clothing and felt part of my community, a place that is was stranger to racism, but it was also not strange for someone to wear Mayan clothing, speak our languages, and feel comfortable in our practices. It was as if I had carried on with two lives in one, one from the city (as a mestiza), and the other from my village (my origin).

It would be a lie if I told you that by studying at the university, and above all, that studying anthropology allowed me to recover my culture, empower myself with my own history as a Kaqchikel Mayan and as a woman, because it was not so. In fact, I feel like seeing and reading all the racism contained in the social sciences provoked such indignation in me that at times I became anti-academic. I witnessed the university incapable of moving beyond the “official” version of history, one which denied that indigenous peoples safeguarded their cosmovision in their clothes, as an example, and that such garments were not imposed on them by the Spanish (which archaeology itself can demonstrate); that the relationship with nature is fundamental in the existence of indigenous peoples and that such a relationship is translated in our clothing; [our clothing] are not amorphous creations, but astronomical, mathematical, and geometrical, representations, among others. During my training as a teacher I never learned anything about indigenous communities nor their histories, thus, I was destined to continue reproducing the same story with my students, simplifying more than 5,000 years of history as a perverse category called “pre-hispanic,” as if  the history of those lands began with the invasion of the Spaniards.

Foto por Sergio García
A Coc Chaman family (q’eqchi’ from Parroquia Lancetillo, Zona Reina, Uspantán, Quiché). Photo by Sergio García

That indignation provoked by what I consider one of my passions, education, motivated me to investigate for myself, but more than that, to open my mind and observe instead of just seeing; to observe within my family, my community,  to observe how in the city and towns there was a constant desire to eliminate the face of indigeneity from this country. If you know this country [Guatemala], then you understand that inevitably you will come across those colorful and unmistakeable [Mayan] clothes, whose contradiction is situated in that they seem so common to us but at the same time, they are so unknowable in their past and present.

One of those afternoons, while I was disguised in a pair of pants and a blouse, or a dress, on my way to the university, a woman sat next to me and began a talking to me. The conversation began with a question directed at me, about whether I studied or not, and I very politely responded that, yes, I was a university student. Immediately, the woman said to me, “Good for you, young lady that you’re studying, because these days, even the little indians are beating us. Or have you not noticed that they even go to university now? That’s why we cannot stay behind, we cannot allow them to surpass us. Imagine! If people like them can get degrees, why not us?”

That afternoon was fundamental in my life; that day I finally understood why I was disguised and why I continuously justified to myself the loss of my clothing, of my identity. I finally understood why we opt to camouflage ourselves among the masses: because racism hurts and it has hurt for generations.

I also learned about strength and perseverance from my K’iche neighbors on the second floor in that apartment building where I lived. Every morning after their working day had gotten started (which as food vendors began at 3:30am), they would wash their clothing, taking over the garden in the back, adorning the grass with their güipiles, skirts, aprons, sashes, and shawls, stretched out in sun, just like how women continue to do so along the edges of rivers.

Kaqchikel women from Patzún, Chimaltenango. Photo by Sergio García.

I have also come to understand that we indigenous communities are constantly defending what is ours because the pillaging and expropriation of our resources has not ended. Because the homogenization of culture by way of racism forces our people to prefer invisibility, even if it means to undress ourselves of our history, of our identity. Given the history that we indigenous communities have lived, presently it is us women who are principally fighting and defending to keep our clothing, not as objects, but as links to our past. We fight so that our clothing is not commercialized or folklorized, and we know that it is not necessary for others to patent our designs [in an attempt] to keep us from wearing our own clothing, because for the last 500 years racism has been trying to do just that.

Now that I am me again, without any disguise or camouflage, racism continues to blatantly strike at me, as if my clothing was an announcement permitting other to discriminate me, but I am also stronger now because I wear more than 5,000 years of history; and because I carry a struggle that is not solitary, rather, we hope that it can grow to such a point that the defense of our people’s heritage is not a question solely for indigenous communities, but that the struggle become yours as well, a struggle by all.


About the author

Sandra Xinico Batz

Sandra is Kaqchikel, originally from Patzún, Chimaltenago. She was born on 1 Kab’an 10 Yaxk’in. She is a primary school teacher, anthropologist, and opinion columnist. At the Universidad de San Carlos of Guatemala, she was a student representative and advocate of university reform. In 2014, she received recognition as a proponent for Juventud Nacional (National Youth), awarded the Premio Guisella Paz y Paz y Jorge Rosal, granted by the Red por la Paz y Desarrollo de Guatemala (Network for Peace and Development of Guatemala). She is presently a member of the Red de Educación para el Desarrollo Sostenible RCE-Guatemala (Education Network for Sustainable Development – Guatemala).

All photographs are provided by the courtesy of the author.

Translation to English by Víctor Interiano

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2 thoughts on “Beneath the Disguise of a Ladina

  1. I am glad to read one of the many examples that happens in Guatemala and Mexico about racism. Is clear since the conquist time stated this problem. The good thing is that now in the universities in the country there are more young people attending the university and more capable to understand our situation about to be an Indigena.

  2. I am grateful that all of the Mayan become more visible and vocal. As a white male, I see the colonialism has not ended and so the exploitation, repression and violence continues. It is crime against humanity and needs to be seen as such.

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